Curtis Levy – Independent Film Maker

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Independent film maker Curtis Levy has received many accolades for his insightful documentaries. The Glasshouse is holding a special screening of one of Curtis’ works, Hephzibah, this month. This inspiring documentary details the extraordinary life of child prodigy and human rights activist, Hephzibah Menuhin …

Where do you hail from, Curtis?

I live in Sydney, but I grew up in Melbourne.

What inspired your interest in film making?

I was originally studying for an Arts degree at Monash University in Melbourne and wanted to be a journalist, because I was editing the student newspaper. But then I found a job with the local television station, called Channel O, in Melbourne. The job was working on documentary films as an assistant producer. So that got me interested in documentaries – before that I didn’t really know what a documentary was.

Then I came up to Sydney and I worked with the Government’s documentary film making unit, called Film Australia. Later I worked for the ABC, making documentaries. I also made quite a few films with Australian Aboriginal communities, for the Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Have you worked on other films?

I went freelance about 20 years ago. I made a lot of films in Indonesia, including one with the then-President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid – I spent 4 months living in the palace in Jakarta.

I made a film about the Australian who was locked up in Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks – The President versus David Hicks. I went to Pakistan and Afghanistan with David’s father, Terry Hicks, and we tried to find out what had happened to David and what had led to him being locked up in Guantanamo Bay.

As an Australian independent film maker, what difficulties have you faced in the process of creating your documentaries?

I guess the biggest issue confronting any documentary film maker is getting good access to the subject. I’ve been lucky, I guess, with films like Hephzibah, where I knew the Nicholas family that Hephzibah married into very well. My parents had been close friends with Hephzibah, and I grew up knowing her.

With the film about the Indonesian President, I had got to know him when he was an opposition figure to the dictator Suharto. When he became President, I rang him up and asked if I could come and make a film about him. He said, “Yes. Come and live in the palace and make the film.”

So it’s all to do with getting to know and gaining the trust of your subjects. That’s the greatest difficulty: having the access and building a special trust with the subject you’re making the film with.

What are the advantages to being independent, as opposed to being backed by a film company or television station?

I think the advantages of being independent are that you can choose subjects that you like, or that you feel passionate about. When I used to make films for other people and other organisations, I sometimes had to make films I really didn’t feel strongly about – they were being made to fill up time in the schedules. Sometimes I’d get frustrated about having to make films that I couldn’t feel passionate about.

So, now all the responsibility is mine and the ideas have to come from my own head rather than other people’s heads. That generally suits me – unless I’m having what writers have with a writers’ block. I guess you’d call it a documentary block!

Your film Hephzibah is screening at The Glasshouse this month. Who was Hephzibah, and why did you choose her as a subject for one of your films?

Hephzibah was an internationally renowned concert pianist who became a human rights activist. She was a fascinating character who arrived in Australia around 50 years ago. She was a very glamorous, energetic woman and a wonderful classical piano player. Her brother was a renowned violinist, and they played together on the same stages around the world.

She also set out to save and change the world. She was a great worker in human rights and had an amazing energy working with all sorts of underprivileged, powerless groups around the world.

She ended up marrying an Australian sheep farmer, when she was only 17 or 18 and lived on a sheep farm in the western districts of Victoria. She lived there for at least 15 years, raising 2 young boys and still giving concerts around the world.

But she eventually fell in love with another man in Sydney and went off with him; he was a sociologist. They moved to London and set up a centre for human rights – and tried to save the world.

She was a pretty amazing woman. I came across her, because she was my mother’s best friend when I was growing up. I often as a child went to stay at this sheep farm in school holidays, so I got to know Hephzibah really well.

I kept in touch with her two sons, and one day I said to her older son, “How would you feel about me making a film about your mum?” He was happy, and the family didn’t put any kind of limitations on the story I told.

Apart from anything else, Hephzibah was a great letter writer, so she put her innermost thoughts and emotional interior life in her writings to various friends. I was able to use Hephzibah’s letters as a key part of the film telling her story; a lot of the story is told in her own words.

Production-wise, what was involved with making Hephzibah?

In all it took a couple of years to make, because there was a lot of research around the world. I started the film in the late ‘90s. The production went quite smoothly, because we got a lot of cooperation from the people who were closest to Hephzibah. It was about a year of research, and the production period would have been maybe 8 months.

We filmed around the world. In Melbourne – people close to the family were still living here, and we filmed at the sheep farm, where she used to live. We also went to America, and met her daughter Clara and to London, where we filmed Yehudi Menuhin and her adopted son Michael.

We filmed where she had lived in the family home in San Francisco – where she grew up. She had Russian parents, and all three children were child prodigies. I believe Hephzibah gave her first concert at the age of 8.

Brother and sister, Yehudi and Hephzibah, when they were giving a concert at the Albert Hall in London, met a brother and sister from Australia, Lindsay and Nola Nicholas – of the family that were part of the Nicholas family involved with inventing the Aspro pill. Yehudi fell in love with Nola, and Hephzibah fell in love with Lindsay – so the brother and sister married brother and sister! That led to Hephzibah coming out to Australia to live on the farm.

The story had all the elements of an incredible drama, and that’s the way it unfolds! Not so many people have packed as many amazing events into one life as Hephzibah did.

What sticks in your mind most from the period you were making the documentary?

I suppose, the emotional impact of her presence in Australia on the people closest to her. She just seemed to affect people’s lives greatly when she was in Australia, and obviously leaving her family affected them deeply emotionally.

Just the way she was able to affect everyone she met in such a deep way … she just had this incredible warm and vibrant personality that left an impact on everyone she met, and she was able to influence everyone’s lives by both her music and the work she was doing.

For instance, she worked in a mental hospital, using her music as a kind of therapy. There are countless examples of how she’d take concrete and effective steps to help people.

What awards has Hephzibah won?

It won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Documentary, and then it won the Best Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, Holland. It also won the Australian Film Critics Award for Best Documentary.

What do you think audiences will take away from viewing the film?

I think the film tells something about the potential of individuals to do so much for society and to live a full life if they put themselves out there, the way Hephzibah did.

I can’t say that many of us have the energy or vibrancy that she did, but at least she showed that an individual can achieve a huge amount if they apply themselves.

It’s such a portrait of a fascinating life. It reveals so much to people about Australia in a particular time of its history. Hephzibah was most active around the ‘50s and early ‘60s – it was a very formative time for Australian culture, and historically I think the film’s very interesting in revealing the values and way of life in Australia at that time.

Thank you Curtis. Hephzibah will be screening at The Glasshouse on January 20 at 4pm as part of the Summer Fest 2011 program.

The screening will support the 2011 Kendall National Violin Competition. Ticket prices are $15 adult and $12 concession / student / child. Contact the Glasshouse Box Office on 6581 8888 for details.

Interview by Jo Atkins.

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